Friday, January 16, 2015

Common Core: Republican Minefield?

Nine months from now, Republican candidates for president will meet on the stage of the Reagan Presidential Library (with the old Air Force One providing great visuals) for the first debate of the 2016 race. It seems likely that among those in attendance will be at least four – Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Mike Huckabee and Jeb Bush – who support (or once supported) the Common Core. Republicans are about to find out what’s been percolating among the grassroots. Properly undertaken, a debate about Common Core could be healthy for the party and the country. Or it could be an unholy squabble over rumors and bogeymen. We’ll see.

The old joke has it that America will never adopt national education standards because Republicans hate anything with the word “national” in it, and Democrats hate anything with the word “standards” in it. Common Core’s advocates accordingly worked through the National Governors Association and other state groups. Backed with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Common Core has now been adopted by 41 states. The Obama administration boosted participation by dangling waivers from some requirements of the No Child Left Behind law, as well as stimulus funds, to states that adopted Common Core. That alone was enough to alienate many Republicans.

Common Core is not a national curriculum. It doesn’t prescribe how children should be taught, but does set benchmarks for what kids in K-12 should know and when. Chester E. Finn Jr., president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is a Reagan alumnus who mostly favors the Core. “It’s superior to the standards” in 75 percent of the states, he explains. Assuming wide adoption and smooth implementation, it would solve the problem of our national mobility – high by international standards – unduly handicapping children. Fourth graders in Spokane would be learning the same math skills as those in Dubuque and Miami. It would also permit parents to evaluate their own schools based on uniform standards.

Conservatives like rigor and accountability. What they emphatically do not like is the leftist, anti-American propaganda that has infiltrated school curricula around the nation. At the moment, despite many claims to the contrary on the Internet, Common Core does not contain history standards, only math and English ones. Aware of the huge backlash that greeted the Clinton-era attempt to promote highly tendentious national history standards (Lynne Cheney played a starring role in exposing them), Common Core’s backers have steered clear – for now.

But as my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Stanley Kurtz has argued, left-wing activists are forever beavering away, shaping what young Americans learn about their past and accordingly what they believe about the present. One vector is the College Board, the company that designs and administers the Advanced Placement tests. The AP American history test is currently under revision, and none of the changes is good. As Finn and Frederick Hess wrote in National Review Online, “There’s little about economics that doesn’t feel caricatured or framed in terms of government efforts to combat injustice. Students are introduced to decade after decade of American racism and depravity, with little positive context for the nation’s foreign engagements or its success creating shared prosperity. … The bias is especially stark when it comes to the 20th century’s iconic presidents. FDR and LBJ are treated reverently … (whereas) Reagan is described … as a man of ‘bellicose rhetoric.’”

Kurtz notes that one of the prime movers of the Common Core program, David Coleman, has recently been named president of the College Board. “Under his leadership,” Kurtz warns, “the College Board has begun to radically redesign all of its AP exams.” It is, Kurtz fears, a “backdoor way to seize control of subjects that would be too hot to handle if formally labeled Common Core.”

There are many reasons to favor high standards in schools and to adopt a national curriculum. The danger, of course, is the political content. At some point, Common Core may attempt to adopt objectionable history standards. That hasn’t happened yet. In the meantime, the College Board is the battlefield. The changes to AP U.S. history have not been formally adopted. The College Board is open to comments. The deadline is February. Here’s the link.

Conservatives should deluge them.


Branded RACIST at five

A little girl who said her friend was 'brown'. A boy who asked a black child if he was from Africa. How teachers are reporting primary school pupils as bigots in official records

Summoned to a meeting at her seven-year-old son’s primary school, Hayley White was prepared for a quick chat about his behaviour.

But when she was told that Elliott had been at the centre of an ‘incident’ with another pupil that was so serious she would have to sign an official form admitting he was racist, she refused to believe what she was hearing.

‘When I arrived at the school and asked Elliott what had happened, he became extremely upset,’ said Ms White, who is a 32-year-old NHS worker. ‘He kept saying to me: “I was just asking a question. I didn’t mean it to be nasty”.’

It turned out that while in the playground Elliott had approached a four-year-old boy and asked him whether he was ‘brown because he was from Africa’. On returning home, the younger boy had told his mother about the comment, and she had informed the school, hoping that they could have a quiet word with Elliott.

Instead, the school’s anti-racism policy swung into action in full force.  At a meeting with Elliott’s teacher and the deputy head of Griffin Primary School in Hull, Ms White was asked to read a copy of the school rules, and in particular its zero-tolerance policy on racism.

‘I was told I would have to sign a form acknowledging my son had made a racist remark, which would be submitted to the local education authority for further investigation,’ she said. ‘I refused to sign it, and I told the teacher that in no way did I agree the comment was racist. My son is inquisitive. He always likes to ask questions, but that doesn’t make him a racist.’

It was a point echoed by Karl Turner, Labour MP for Kingston-upon-Hull East. ‘It seems the matter has been taken out of all proportion, and common sense seems to have gone completely out of the window,’ he said.  No doubt that is a conclusion that most right-thinking people would also reach.

But the reality is that across the country each year, thousands of children as young or even younger than Elliott are being branded racists, homophobes and bigots over minor school squabbles, or even innocent questions.

Few such incidents are ever discussed, because unlike Elliott’s mother — who bravely spoke out about his treatment three years ago — most parents are so shocked by the accusations levelled at their child that they dare not challenge them publicly.

An obsession with equality and diversity also appeared to be at the root of a news story this week about Ofsted inspectors who asked children aged ten at a Christian school if they knew what lesbians ‘did’. They are also said to have questioned pupils about transsexuality and asked if any of their friends felt trapped in ‘the wrong body’.

But there is something particularly toxic about allegations of racism, not least because there is a danger that the more children are branded racist, the more divisions will be sown between children of different colours and creeds where none existed before.

Shockingly, thanks to a desperation to satisfy equalities legislation, one-off comments by pupils aged just three or four are being officially recorded by over-zealous teachers.

And while in the past these reports might have simply focused on supposed ‘racism’, in some areas of the country teachers are now being encouraged to note down an ever-growing range of so-called ‘prejudice-based’ incidents.

This includes behaviour deemed offensive on the grounds of ‘gender identity’, ‘appearance’ and even ‘home circumstances’ — for example calling a male fellow pupil a ‘girl’, or ‘posh’ can count as abuse.

Experts fear that young children often do not understand the significance of what they are saying, and that dealing with them in such an overblown manner risks exaggerating a minor issue.

Worse still, they warn that there can be serious consequences for young children, who can effectively end up being branded as bigots throughout their school career.

This is because some primaries are passing records on to each child’s next school, which means the damaging allegations stay with them into their secondary education.

‘It can also create a climate of fear because the child does not then know what they can or can’t say. The politically correct agenda dominates over the interests of children — if the label carries on through the rest of their school career, it can be very dangerous.’

To get an insight into the way in which children’s behaviour is being monitored, a detailed look at the policy being pursued by one local education authority — Brighton and Hove City Council — is revealing.

It expects all secondary and primary schools to record and report bullying incidents centrally.

For this purpose, in September 2012 it produced a two-page document entitled ‘Brighton and Hove Schools bullying and prejudice-based incident reporting guidance form’.

The first page — running to several hundred words — offers teachers no less than nine separate tick-box options with which to describe the bullying. With each option, examples are given of language or behaviour that might have been used.

So it is that next to the category for ‘disability/special needs/medical condition’, examples of derogatory language are given as ‘retard/ spaz/geek/nerd’.

For ‘gender identity’ bullying, the words suggested are ‘sissy/butch, she/he, gender bender’. Another category is ‘home circumstances’, where bullying might involve the use of the words ‘chav’ or ‘posh’.

Teachers are also asked to tick the type of behaviour involved in the bullying. Again, multiple options are spelled out in minute detail. These include directing ‘dirty looks’, ‘jokes’ and ‘sarcasm’ at another pupil.

On the second page of the form, teachers are expected to fill in by hand a description of the incident in question. I have seen a number of these reports.

One, for instance, submitted by a primary school teacher, reported that a mother had complained pupils aged six and seven had called her son ‘Chinese boy’ at playtime because they did not know his name.

Another relates how a child was teased because of her appearance. It reads: ‘Xxx was called “doughnut”, “fat bucket of KFC”, “fat custard cream” whilst joining in a game’.

In another case, at a Brighton nursery, a child aged three or four was the subject of an incident report and subjected to ‘counselling’.  This was, apparently, in response to an incident when she was ‘looking at pictures of people with different eye colours and said “yuk not black” and discarded all the black faces, then said “I want a boy”.’

According to a spokesman for Brighton and Hove, all these reports would be submitted and analysed by the council.

‘Our city-wide approach enables us to work with schools to address issues and provide support where needed,’ he said. ‘This helps tackle bullying in the most appropriate way. Responding according to type of bullying provides an effective way to tackle the complex issues.’

But author Adrian Hart, who obtained the reports via a series of Freedom of Information requests while researching his new book That’s Racist!, disagrees. He believes that the authorities’ obsession with ‘racist’ and ‘prejudiced’ behaviour has resulted in trivial playground arguments being taken out of context and exaggerated beyond their real meaning.

‘In the real world of schools, the playground is a frenetic, messy place colonised by children who will insist on behaving, well, childishly,’ he says. ‘The customs and tradition of this social group dictate that they fall out, make up, fall out again. They show off, use “inappropriate” language and are notorious for their flippant cruelty.’

He adds: ‘Children’s everyday games, interactions and fallings-out are being elevated to a level far beyond playground banter. They are perceived as mini-adults, investing words with a prejudice and power that bears no relation either to their age or the context in which they are living and playing.’

Of the 13 Brighton primary schools he surveyed, five said they would attach incidents of prejudice-related bullying to the child’s reports submitted to the next school.

The latest research by Mr Hart is particularly interesting because it had been widely assumed that schools were no longer collecting such detailed information.

Under New Labour, the reporting of ‘racist’ incidents became recommended practice in education authorities across the country.

As a result, when Mr Hart previously investigated the issue for civil liberties group the Manifesto Club in 2011, he found that schools in England and Wales were routinely submitting 30,000 reports a year.

But that year, the coalition government made it clear it no longer expected schools to act in this way, leaving it to their own judgment as to how they recorded bullying incidents.

So when Mr Hart revisited his research, the expectation was that this change of attitude would be reflected in the figures.

Focusing on the 30 local authorities that had reported the most pupils under Labour, he found that while 17 had ceased collecting ‘racist’ incident reports, 13 continued to do so. Six of these had actually expanded their reporting criteria to take in a wider range of ‘prejudice-related’ bullying.

He discovered that in 2012-13, schools had reported some 4,348 incidents to the 13 authorities. But what also emerged was that even schools who were not required to report to local authorities were still collecting such reports.

The reason, Mr Hart believes, is their desire to satisfy Ofsted inspectors.

‘Any schools seeking to gain or maintain “outstanding” Ofsted ratings have quickly learned that demonstrating compliance with equalities duties means inspections can be faced with confidence,’ explains Mr Hart. ‘It’s absolutely fair to say that schools across the country are continuing unabated in their practices,’ he said.

So it is that Mr Hart learned that at individual primary schools in Birmingham — an authority which no longer requires its schools to do so — incident reports were still being logged.

One report he obtained under an FOI request read: ‘Xxx said she hated Christians during a discussion with Miss xxxx.’

Another begins: ‘Xxxx called xxxx an African rat. Xxxx said: “I know I shouldn’t have called it her because I am black as well.” ’

The impact these formal accusations of racism or discrimination can have on pupils and their parents should not be underestimated.

On websites dedicated to parenting matters, discussions abound about such incidents.

In one, a mother called Kelly tells how her eight-year-old son had got into trouble after playing a game of tag in which everyone who was ‘it’ was given the name of a sikh guru, a subject about which they had been learning in class.

When an Asian boy was tagged, he complained to a teacher.

‘My son and his friend have now lost two days’ worth of break and lunch playtimes and I received a letter on Saturday advising that it’s a racist remark and will be reported to the LEA to stay on my son’s file,’ she wrote.

‘In my eyes it was a game. OK maybe the boys should have been told off as it upset the other boy, but to be labelled racist when it’s a name they’ve been learning about at school through the week? I’m mortified.

‘I’m starting to wonder what this world is coming to, it almost appears that you cannot say anything without someone misinterpreting it as a racist comment.’

Another mother wrote about how her five-year-old child had got into trouble for referring to her best friend as ‘brown’.

‘They said as this is the 2nd time she has made a “racist” remark it will be put on record and reported to the council,’ she wrote. ‘I was so upset! My daughter is NOT racist, she is five years old, she has coloured family members and family friends. Now it is down on record that my child is racist. I spoke to my daughter and she does not understand what she has done wrong . . . she said “mummy but she is brown, she has brown skin”.’

But Chris McGovern, of the Campaign for Real Education — himself a former headmaster — fears that the ‘offending’ child’s interests are instead being sacrificed for the sake of political correctness.

‘In many cases in many schools we have over-zealous bureaucrats who have responsibility for politically correct behaviour, who are almost brain-washed by their teacher training and put upon by their local authorities,’ he said. ‘As a result, they are looking for examples of racist or homophobic comment which may not in fact mean anything to the child.

‘The enforcers of these politically correct positions need to justify those positions: they look for evidence and find what they are looking for. It is a bit like witch-finding — they are seeking out examples to justify their position.’ With the end result, of course, that pupils find themselves being treated like criminals.


Florida Schools Ban Bibles After Pressure from Atheists

 Amid mounting pressure from both atheist groups and concerned parents, Orange County (Fla.) Public Schools have banned Bible distribution in several area high schools after Satanists and an anti-religion group announced plans to pass out their own literature.

One of the largest school systems in the country with more than 180,000 students, OCPS had allowed World Changers of Florida, a Christian group, in conjunction with the Florida Family Policy Council to passively distribute Bibles to high school students on Jan. 16 -- which is National Freedom of Religion Day -- for the past three years.

Under the school system’s policy at the time, Bibles could be placed on a table in a common area for students to pick up if they chose to do so.

Last year, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist group, sued for the right to distribute its own literature after losing a battle to have all outside materials banned from the schools. One of the group’s proposed pamphlets included a small leaflet titled “An X-Rated Book: Sex and Obscenity in the Bible.”

In addition, as reported, the Satanic Temple also announced plans to pass out literature in Orange County high schools, including “pamphlets related to the Temple’s tenets, philosophy and practice of Satanism, as well as information about the legal right to practice Satanism in school.”

After initially refusing to allow FFRF to distribute “An X-Rated Book,” along with a few of the group’s other materials, the school system relented in the midst of a heated court battle and gave the group permission to pass out all of their proposed materials “without condition,” according to court documents.

But now, OCPS has stated it will not allow any materials to be distributed, including atheist pamphlets, Satanist coloring books -- or Bibles.

“Nothing’s going to be going on in this district this month,” confirmed Kathy Marsh, communications director for OCPS.

Marsh said no materials will be allowed from outside groups until the school system’s distribution policy can be “reworked” to avoid future problems. The school system is currently in talks with its attorneys to hash out the most efficient policy, she added.

“The intent would be to create a policy that would prevent potential distributors of information from-- or assist, I should say, assist potential distributors of information so they fully understand what is and isn’t allowed, and they don’t run into an area that is gray. So we can make it extremely clear to them that which is welcome in Orange County Public Schools, and that which is not,” Marsh explained.

While similar to the original policy, the school system’s new proposed policy states that “Materials of a denominational, sectarian, religious, political and partisan nature shall not be permitted to be distributed.”

For Florida Family Policy Council President John Stemberger, the school board’s decision to ban Bible distribution in the face of opposition was “unfortunate.”

“It required courage on their part, which is lacking,” he said. He believes the school board caved in to pressure after concerned parents spoke out at board meetings against Satanist materials being made available in schools.

“This is precisely what the Freedom From Religion people want,” Stemberger added. “They want to get rid of religion, and that’s their strategy. And everybody’s played into the strategy. It’s unfortunate.”

Not making Bibles available to students who want them removes a Christian voice from public schools, and also keeps students from accessing an important piece of history, Stemberger added.

“It further underscores the public school experience as a completely secular experience, meaning God is not mentioned, God is not recognized, and God is not incorporated in any way -- which is an unfortunate thing,” he said.

“Irrespective of whether someone’s a Christian or not, I think the Bible is something that is one of the key documents that gives us Western civilization and is one of the greatest pieces of literature of all time. It is clearly the best-selling book of all time of any culture anywhere in the world. So the fact that children are not being exposed to that, those who attend public school, is an unfortunate thing.”

Stemberger said the FFPC will remain active in the discussions surrounding any future policy decisions. “If they have study groups or positions that are open, we will attend them and attempt to talk with them about this.”

A representative from the Freedom From Religion Foundation was not immediately available for comment.

The Orange County School Board will meet to discuss the proposed changes to the policy on Jan. 29.


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